Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Alexander Sokurov : Alexandra - Александра (2007)

Directed by Alexander Sokurov
Starring Galina Vishnevskaya, Vasily Shevtsov, Raisa Gichaeva.

Aleksandra Nikolaevna visits her grandson, a Russian soldier serving in Chechnia. Everyone—soldiers and Chechens alike—treat her respectfully. The grandmother spends two nights and heads home to St. Petersburg.

Three questions come to mind, of which the first two are somewhat childlike. First, does this story make any sense? Second, what does Sokurov think about Chechnia? And third—the only real question for Sokurophiles—what kind of Sokurov is this? I will concentrate on the last question, since its answer—right or wrong—will perhaps lend the other two questions more significance.

Thematically, Alexandra is a contribution to Sokurov's cluster of family portraits, familiar to us from Mother and Son (Mat' i syn, 1996) and Father and Son (Otets i syn, 2003), as well as their promised continuation, Two Brothers and a Sister. This assignment, of course, is not indisputable. If one cared to, one could claim Alexandra as a variant of Sokurov's abiding interest in military service, as in Spiritual Voices (Dukhovnye golosa, 1995) and Confession (Ispoved', 1998), but it would not matter much. Like family portraiture, the military cluster is another thematic inventory and not the most interesting kind of analysis. Let us, therefore, conditionally retain Alexandra in the cluster of family portraiture in order to make several other points.

Sokurov's first family portrait, Mother and Son, had been closer as a medium to painting than to story-telling, while his subsequent Father and Son offered a greater balance between visual and narrative modes. If, in Mother and Son, cameraman Aleksei Fedorov's painterly depth and anamorphic stretch moved story-telling to the sidelines—pushed it “out of the picture,” as it were—then Father and Son returned to us the reassuring narrative drive of certain earlier films.[1] Alexandra, while sharing portraiture with both films, follows the structural lead of Father and Son in providing an understated but steady plot. Absent is not only the anamorphism of Mother and Son, but other camera and editing devices as well: the documentary inserts of Mournful Indifference (Skorbnoe beschuvstvie, 1983; released 1987), the extreme anatomical close-ups of Taurus (Telets, 2000), the digital animation and hallucinatory episodes of Sun (Solntse, 2004).

In place of this visual play, we have a subdued picture of Chechnia, a land without bloodshed, a place where the most violent conflicts are mild verbal rebukes. For a filmmaker who has returned again and again to the topic of death, and for whom Chechnia would be another opportunity to do so, Alexandra is striking in its indifference to this trope. Likewise absent here—perhaps because of its potential colonialist valence in this context—is Sokurov's recurring preoccupation with high culture—and European elite culture in particular—as a resource of human wisdom. Instead, Sokurov's soundtrack emphasizes original music by Andre Sigle. His aural design of the film attempts none of the ideological assertions of Russia's cultural contribution to which we are accustomed in Sokurov from Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg, 2002) and elsewhere. ...

Alexandra - Review - New York Times

Alexander (2007)

Also: Sokurov's Alexandra: Army of One

Aleksandr Sokurov merges the focus of his trilogy of films on political power (such as The Sun) with those about the intensely chambered, loving intimacy between family members in Alexandra, a film about the eponymous grandmother (Galina Vishnevskaya) traveling to a Russian army base in contemporary Chechnya to visit her grandson Denis (Vasily Shevtsov). The combination is an uneasy one; the insular, heartfelt and incredibly tactile familial relationships of films like Mother and Son here seem to slowly spread out like water expanding on a dry clothe as the distance in age and generation, in outlook, and in ideology between grandmother and grandson make the tottering Alexandra an open vessel of familial compassion and attention beyond just Denis but also for all Russian soldiers.

Appropriately, Sokurov for the most part restrains his baroque visual distortions and dreamy atmosphere, though Alexandra still seems to drift through the landscape of Chechnya in a kind of haze. The setting here being one of soldiers and not of leaders as in Moloch, Telets, and The Sun, the military aspect of Alexandra is not about power as much as it is of presence, or perhaps even existence—of soldiers, of their uniforms and their sweat, of their lonely, haggard and young faces, and, of course, of Alexandra’s exhausted, tireless searching. Like José Luis Guerín’s film In the City of Silvia, much of Sokurov’s film could be seen as structured around a solitary person’s ardent but unclear hunt through faces, visions, and sounds for something of great but unvoiced importance. For Alexandra, her joy at waking up after her first night in camp to the presence of her grandson seems to indicate that her search is over, but as their brief relationship develops in short dialogs and through the grandmother’s exploration of the camp and the nearby Chechen town, a discord between the two appears which explains Alexandra’s still unceasing activity, somehow vaguely unsatisfied by her grandson, and, through him, by the Russian intrusion into Chechnya and the abstract dissatisfaction of the soldiers. ...

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